There are several existing and in development films about WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing site founded by Julian Assange, but few may live up to the odd spectacle of director Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate. The film is a trendy adaptation of Daniel Berg's Inside WikiLeaks, an autobiographical portrait of the German technology activist's time at the controversial organisation, as a programmer, a spokesperson, and right-hand man to its founder.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a white haired genius who in 2007 recruits Berg (Daniel Brühl) to help him run his underground whistleblower site with the goal of revealing the truth, by any means necessary. Spanning five years, the movie gives context to the stories we all know. Focusing on some of the most explosive leaks from the website, starting with the take-down of the Julius Bär Bank, on to the BNP members list leak, the 'Collateral Murder' video, and finally Chelsea Manning's leaks of countless classified US government files.
Of course, while it makes for a good primer on some of the touchstones of the WikiLeaks story, the film never really purports to be a faithfully unbiased retelling of true events. Part Hackers, part The Social Network, it is less concerned with strict realism, and more in awe of this new age of information, where anything can be shared with a click of the button, and where traditional journalistic outlets like The Guardian and the New York Times are rivalled, sometimes bettered, by their online counterparts. But the focal point is mainly the relationship between Berg and Assange, kindred spirits connected by a common cause who disagree on one major issue: the ethical implications of releasing classified information to the public, information that could potentially put lives in danger.
For Assange, played by Cumberbatch as charming, slightly odd, passionate, and megalomaniacal, the dissemination of damning government secrets, no matter the consequences, is simply the right thing to do. For Berg, twitchy and idyllic and clearly inspired by his mentor, it's reckless. This clash in ideals is where some of the movie's most effective drama comes from.
It's a cinematic exercise in trying to find the balance between style and substance. Whether it succeeds in this honest attempt is another matter. The substance is certainly there in the story, which though fast-paced in its approach is consistently engaging. But then there are moments when the movie becomes the visual equivalent of someone's dad discovering dubstep (which, by the way, comprises a huge chunk of the movie's soundtrack). Meaning to say, it at points can be a bit cringeworthy, a bit hard to sit through, as lots of tech-y visual flourishes are hurled at the screen all at once with hopes that some will stick.
Some do. Others don't, like one running motif of a sort of hypothetical representation of the internet, a digitally rendered, physical landscape of never-ending desks and laptops where we watch millions of Julians and Daniels physically re-enact the cyber dramas taking place on their laptop screens. These sequences are as awkward and bewildering as they sound. The movie would have simply been better, even great, without them.
Still, while at points one might be inclined to laugh (or cry) at all the trendy gloss, there's also a sense of self-awareness there that ultimately works to the movie's advantage. Throughout the film, characters make big, weighty speeches about integrity, about courage being contagious, about sticking it to the man and fighting the good fight. These big, weighty speeches at points start to bleed into one another. But it's the last big speech in the film that really means something.
A meta moment in every sense of the word, it's the moment where Cumberbatch's talent is on full display as the movie shifts, ever so slightly, turns to the viewer and tells us to make up our own minds about Assange, about Berg, about the entire idea of WikiLeaks as a whole. It's this quality of asking questions and providing no black and white answers that makes The Fifth Estate, in spite of its bluster and bravado, worth watching.